While Kelly was the most recent friend I lost to cancer, she sadly wasn’t the first. I was reminded by a dear friend that today is Heather Ann Sherman-Galasso’s birthday. It makes sense now that I think about it that these two would have birthdays so close together. They both were strong, smart, creative, cheerful and compassionate. Even though Heather passed away 20 years ago, she continues to inspire me.
When I was in the second grade, our teacher partnered with another in a school district to set up a pen pal program. The school was only in the next town over, but it might as well have been on Mars. I was matched with Heather, and I loved her instantly. It breaks my heart that the letters she wrote me that year have been lost over time, but I remember their spirit. She was so smart, and made me laugh, and I called her my best friend.
Towards the end of the year, the teachers arranged a meeting. Heather’s class took the trip to visit us at our school. I remember seeing the big yellow school bus pull up to the front of our building, and feeling so excited I was afraid I might throw up. She was here! Oh, but what if she saw me and didn’t like me? What if she thought I was weird? Or boring, or ugly, or stupid? I couldn’t stand it if she didn’t love me.
This next part I can’t be sure of, but in my heart my memory is that she was wearing a white dress, and she ran to me and hugged me. That summer, (or maybe the one after?), Heather and I went to summer day camp together. It’s still true, even now, that Heather was able to make me laugh harder than almost anyone, ever. Over that summer, we got in trouble a lot, were separated many times because we were making each other laugh and unable to stop, couldn’t calm down or control ourselves.
We ended up at the same high school. Heather was so brave–she was who she was and didn’t care whether you liked it or not, didn’t need your approval because she was having a great time. Not that she was a jerk about it at all, she was kind to everyone. High school is stupid, and as the friend who reminded me that today was Heather’s birthday would be able to tell you, the people who are worth loving, who deserve our friendship, our kindness, and our time, aren’t necessarily the people we spend those years with–we miss out on so much. We are so caught up in trying to fit in, or comforting ourselves because we can’t fit in, that nothing really works. And by we, I mean me.
I found my safe place in choir and drama. Heather and I were together in some of those moments and events. We also took a lot of classes together. I especially remember Sewing and Health & Family Matters (or whatever that class was really called), and as always, the way she could make me laugh. There were lots of other moments, and she was always around, we were always around together, but we weren’t as close then as we were when we were younger. And yet, I continued to love her.
Graduation came and we didn’t keep in touch. To be fair, I didn’t really keep in touch with much of anybody. I was going through my own struggles and felt so removed from those years, like it was a whole other life. I got married too young, moved to Arizona, moved back to Oregon, got divorced, had a long string of bad relationships, drank too much, didn’t sleep enough–was too busy “smashing myself to bits.” I was so lost.
One day, my mom said, “Did you know that Heather Sherman is sick?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained that Heather had leukemia and was very sick. I was stunned. Just a few days later, there was an article in the paper about her.
I was in shock, and felt like a jerk. This person I loved so much, I had essentially forgotten. I was so caught up in my own stink and struggle that she’d slipped away from me. But now what did I do? “Hey Heather, I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but I heard that you were sick–you wanna hang out or something?” After thinking about it, I finally decided that I would write her a letter, give it to my mom to give to her dad (at the time, they worked at the same middle school), who could give it to Heather. That way, even if she didn’t want to see me, she’d know I was thinking about her.
But I waited too long. I was still writing the letter when the newspaper published her obituary. I walked around that whole day in a daze. How could this have happened? Why was I so stupid, so slow? The guilt, the shame, the sadness froze me in place and, (I will always regret this), I didn’t go to her funeral.
20 years later, I try to give myself a break, try to forgive myself. I was only 22 at the time, and pretty screwed up. And when it happened again, with Kelly, I made sure she knew how much I loved her, and I bought a plane ticket and flew to Kentucky for her memorial service. I might not have realized how important that would be if I hadn’t made the mistake of staying away from Heather’s.
Heather’s loss woke me up. I cleaned myself up, stopped dating, moved back to my parent’s house and went back to school. I wasn’t going to waste my life any more. Heather didn’t have a choice, but I did, and to honor her, I was going to start living and making better choices. And I still find myself on many days, when I feel like giving up, reminding myself that Heather can’t, so I have to.
From ‘In Blackwater Woods’
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~ Mary Oliver ~
- Who are you missing? Who are you honoring with your life?